How Covid Turned Cashiers into Carers

As months of social isolation continue, retail staff are finding their jobs shifting from customer service to caring - a sign of depleted social infrastructure caused by ruthless cutbacks.

Last week, during a shift at my minimum wage retail job, something happened. When I handed a customer his change through the small hole in the plexiglass divider, he reached out, took my hand, and clung to it. After about ten seconds, he let go, looked down at the floor and said: ‘I’m very sorry. The thing is, I live alone.’

Reporting on retail and the Covid-19 pandemic has tended to emphasise workers’ exposure to physical abuse (research done by USDAW found that ‘the average shopworker has been assaulted, threatened or abused every 6.5 days – more than double the rate of incidents compared to 2019’), or their exposure to increased rates of infection and risk of death.

But the pandemic has exposed retail staff to other, less overt challenges, too. Since lockdown creates a world in which shops are one of the only environments people can be guaranteed face-to-face interactions, security guards and cashiers alike are finding themselves recast as counsellors, mental health support workers, and ‘friends’.

In my shop, visits from vulnerable, elderly, and lonely customers—nearly all of whom live alone, and some of whom have complex mental health conditions—have dramatically increased. These individuals often stay for over an hour. They come for a variety of reasons, but mainly to be somewhere warm and to have someone to talk to – about their worries, their YouTube channels, their medication, their boredom.

This trend has been accelerated, not created, by the pandemic. Back in 2005, David Cameron declared: ‘There is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same thing as the state.’ What Covid-19 has revealed, Will Davies writes, is how difficult it is to sustain what there was of that state-free ‘society’ ‘without everyday sociality’. Austerity created precarious living conditions that vastly accelerated people’s need for care, while simultaneously dismantling both the formal institutions of care—like Sure Start Centres and the welfare system—and informal community support sites, like youth clubs, libraries, and museums. ‘Big Society’ rhetoric presented this devastation as a civic opportunity for local communities and the nuclear families to step in and absorb responsibility for vulnerable people, without giving them additional funding for the resources that responsibility requires. It is in this context that retailers have emerged as providers of social support.

The behaviour of retail staff over the course of the pandemic has been depicted as ‘heartwarming’ and full of ‘simple acts of kindness’, as though retail staff don’t work for pay, but in the hope of inspiring next year’s John Lewis Christmas ad. This framing downplays the degree of physical and emotional labour involved in providing emotional support, while depoliticising the fact that it has been left to retail workers to provide it. The new relationship between customers and staff should be seen for what it is – the outsourcing of care.

There’s an obvious risk involved in legitimising the corporate sphere as a site for community care: retailers are only ever concerned with profit. In an employee’s list of duties, promoting the shop’s loyalty scheme comes before discussing a customer’s mental health; from an employer’s perspective, vulnerable people being forced to spend money to gain access to sociability is good business, so improving their emotional state is self-defeating. Given what research indicates about the complicated relationship between vulnerability, mental health, and spending—one study from Money and Mental Health found that ‘93% of people with mental health problems spend more when they’re unwell’—corporations may well exploit the problem. The trend points to the increasingly blurry distinction between corporate and community nationwide, too, which justifies privatisation within the actual care sector – a process which comes with the same profit-oriented problems.

For employees, broader transformations in models of employment help explain how this development took place. Writing for Verso, Kathi Weeks describes how employers increasingly encourage their staff to conceive of their work as purposeful, because ‘figuring out how our job has a positive impact on the world will help us to maximise our conviction at work.’ It’s easier to ‘love your job’ when you believe it contributes to a greater good, which in turn creates fulfilled, happy workers, who are willing to work harder and longer. Weeks also suggests that invoking a responsibility to care breaks down borders between work and non-work selves, so that workers end up ‘mimicking the unbounded qualities of household care work.’

That trend—the expectation that staff to adopt endless ‘soft skills’ not listed on their job roles—points to changes in workers’ subjectivity. In Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital, Michel Feher builds on the idea that the concept of ‘labour’ has been replaced by the concept of ‘human capital’, which means workers now see themselves as a ‘portfolio composed by their behaviours’, and their goals as opportunities to increase their value as assets. When workers understand themselves as entrepreneurs—and therefore the architects of their own employability—they are more likely to take on new tasks at work as a way to invest in themselves. The expectation on retail staff to provide community support, then, is part of the pattern whereby workers are forced to constantly seek to grow their human capital, and cynically exploits fears of unemployability and unemployment.

With the collapse of Arcadia and Debenhams, and the more general decline of the high street, physical stores find themselves under immense pressure to compete with ecommerce. The solution most given is that stores must offer in-person experiences that online shopping cannot. Combined with a desire for more face-to-face interactions, it’s not hard to see how delivering care and support could be transferred from frontline pandemic work to standard retail practice. The term ‘key worker’ has helped highlight the chronic undervaluing and underpayment of retail workers, which is a good thing, but when I give up my lunch break to deliver goods to customers too old or weak to carry their own shopping, I find myself wondering what is it that the government recognises as ‘key’ in my labour.

That we have come to gaze lovingly upon our local HSBC or Asda indicates just how depleted our infrastructures of care truly are. Exhausted retail staff on minimum wage must not be treated as the solution to a crisis of care and community created by a decade of neglect: continuing down this path can only fail vulnerable people and shop workers alike.